Why we use OKRs

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results

There are about seven slack groups I check on, and one of them is a thriving tech leadership community. The #okr channel alone has 457 members. 😳  

What gives? 

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. It’s a goal-setting approach that Google popularized. The gist:

  • Set a qualitative objective that challenges and inspires you 🚀

  • Define 3ish key results that quantify your progress toward your objective 📈

  • Work toward these for a defined time, about 3 months 📅

  • Assess, adjust, repeat 💫

OKRs are a powerful tool and they’ve been good for our team. But that doesn’t mean they’re a great fit for you.  

First, some backstory

We didn’t pick up OKRs because we love jargon (gross 😝) or feel smart using acronyms (not 😐). 

We picked up OKRs because we reached an inflection point. We needed to narrow our focus and track progress. Andrew ran across the framework on Christina Wodtke’s blog—her articles inspired our approach—and decided it could be a good fit.  

Three things drew us to OKRs. 

They’re time-bound. 🕓Limiting goals to one quarter is ideal for our team. We tried setting them for longer, but they wound up being too speculative. We’re all for long-term vision, but we discovered we thrive with short-term goals. 

Setting goals we know we may not hit resonates with what we want goals to do for our team. We want them to be a guide. James Clear has the best analogy for this. He describes goals as a rudder on a boat. A goal provides direction and a system, the oars, propel you forward. OKRs fit this analogy. (Also, Andrew just acquired a fixer-upper boat, so we’re into those right now.) ⛵

OKRs balance feels and metrics. Emotions are important in personal and professional settings. We don’t shut off our feels on the way to work and turn them back on during the drive home. The cool thing about OKRs is we can set an emotionally-charged big picture goal and then dig into it with quantitative results. #balance #feels ⚖

The good, the toxic, and the unexpected 

👍Good: This framework gives us clarity over what’s important. It also forces us to get creative and specific. One time, team members felt isolated on projects. How do you measure reduced isolation? Now, it’s true you can’t measure everything. But granularity helps you uncover what you actually mean by a goal. Vague goals get vague results; specific goals get specific results.  

🚭Toxic: If you measure or target the wrong thing, you wind up rewarding the wrong behavior. Because it’s hard to set OKRs well, we’ve failed and wound up doing this.

💬Unexpected: One of the trickiest things with OKRs is defining an audacious—but not impossible—objective. You shouldn’t check 100% of the boxes (if you did, the goals were too easy), but you shouldn’t miss all of them either. It’s surprisingly hard to balance!  

The trouble with any kind of goal-setting 

OKRs, like any goal system, can get ugly. 😨These founder behaviors turn systems rotten, and fast:  

  • Setting vanity goals—things you achieve for the sake of saying, “hey look! I did a thing!”

  • Assuming everything is measurable 
  • Substituting goals for company vision; they’re not interchangeable 

  • Encouraging shame and demotivation when anyone falls short

  • Expecting goals to fix something like a bad co-founder fit—some issues need to be nixed, not measured 

You can avoid these behaviors though, and it’s worth trying. Goals have been “a thing” for a very long time, and it’s because they do work. 

Tips for figuring out your own goal system 

Start with your why. 👈 Why do you need goals in the first place? What are you hiring them to do for you? Don’t throw yourself into a framework because everyone else is, and don’t slap random targets on a whiteboard. Define why, then pick a framework...if you need one. 

Know how you work. 👏Do big, hairy, audacious goals motivate you? OKRs could be a great fit; they help you aim big. Or are you like me, and practical milestones get you excited? You may do better with less ambitious goals. Smaller goals aren’t bad, and they don’t mean you’re less of an entrepreneur. Wistia, Helpscout, and Buffer have all moved away from OKRs. The “best” approach depends on you and your team.

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Keep it realistic. 💭Important things are hard to measure. For example, the quality of an event. Do you track retention? Survey the production team? Andrew went with the second recently, but it’s an imperfect measure of quality--it’s a qualitative measure forced into a quantitative scale. Occasionally, that’s your only option. Some improvements don’t neatly translate into metrics, and that’s okay. 

Give it time to work. ⏰Try a system for a few quarters before you abandon it, especially with OKRs. You’ll probably set up everything wrong the first time, but don’t give up. The point isn’t to have a perfect system. The point is to find a framework that helps you focus and pushes you forward. If a framework doesn’t do those things after a few quarters, then you can switch. 

Keep the goals in front of you. 👀It’s so easy to set and forget goals. Revisit them in weekly or monthly meetings so you remember what you’re aiming for. 

OKRs have worked for us, but that doesn't mean they’re a great fit for you. Every founder and business is different. So tell me, what kind of goal-setting has worked for you?